The Shrimp Price Tag

Kennedy Warne, author of “Let Them Eat Shrimp: The Tragic Disappearance of the Rainforests of the Sea”, answered a few questions, posed by The Ecologist, about the importance of mangroves, the devastation caused by shrimp farming and his experiences researching his book.

You call mangroves the “rainforests of the sea”. While most people know about rainforests, most don’t know about mangroves. Why is that and why are they important?

Kennedy Warne: Mangroves tend to be associated with mud, and most people don’t like mud. (With the possible exception of potters). They also tend to harbour mosquitoes, and very few people (apart from entomologists) like mosquitoes. So there are a couple of reasons straight off the bat why mangroves have been maligned and disrespected – or simply ignored. While terrestrial tropical rainforests aren’t exactly fun places to be, with their torpid heat, abundance of bugs, high rainfall and other challenging attributes, people still recognise their importance and endorse efforts to prevent their destruction. Why aren’t mangroves higher on the environmental priority list? I don’t know. Their contribution to the planet and to humankind is immense. As I write in the book, they serve as coastal barricades and land stabilizers; they supply nutrients to the sea and nursery grounds for marine life; and they provide homes and livelihoods for millions of people across the tropical world.

In the book you detail the devastation caused by shrimp aquaculture. How has the western taste for massive amounts of this “luxury” food at a cheap price played a role?

The problem with shrimp aquaculture is that in the industry’s pioneering years, during the 1970s and 1980s, the ideal site for a shrimp pond happened to be at about the same position on the shore that mangroves flourish: low enough to get occasional tidal flow, but high enough not to be affected by tides all the time. Because mangrove forests tended to be public lands occupied by subsistence communities, they were readily appropriated by a combination of commercial aggression and governmental compliance.

Governments in developing countries became keen backers of shrimp farming because shrimp fetched a high price in the West, and was therefore a reliable source of foreign exchange. It was relatively easy for aquaculture corporations to clear mangroves and build shrimp ponds, the land was cheap to rent and there was plenty of it, so the cost of farming shrimp was low. Probably the most odious part of the early years of shrimp farming was that when one pond was nutritionally exhausted, the company would abandon it and bulldoze some more mangroves to build a new one. So the forests gave way to ever-expanding swathes of ponds. And all the while, consumers in the West couldn’t believe their luck, that such a tasty seafood was flooding into supermarket freezers and on to restaurant menus for such a cheap price. They never made the connection between cheap shrimp and disappearing mangrove forests.

As you travelled, you say first-hand the devastation caused by shrimp aquaculture and massive coastal development. How has this impacted both the environment and the local communities?

When you read statistic of how much mangrove forest individual countires have lost – 50 per cent, 60 per cent, 70 per cent – it can be very hard to get a picture of what those coastlines would have looked like if they had been left alone. But then you go to a place like the Sundarbans, the largest tract of mangrove in the world, and it starts to dawn on you the magnitude of what has been lost. And because mangroves are among the most biologically diverse forests on earth, you also realise that many species that rely on mangroves have disappeared too. Australian writer Tim Flannery wrote a book called A Gap in Nature, and that is what mangrove clearance caused: a very large, unfillable gap in nature.

Initially, my interest was focused on the natural history of mangroves. But then I started to meet people whose lives had been disrupted – more than most, catastrophically damaged – by mangrove deforestation, and I started to turn my attention to the impact mangrove loss was having on coastal communities. They were losing a physical resource, of course – source of timber, thatch, medicine, food – but they were also losing a defining part of their identity as forest dwellers. It would be like living next to a river and waking up one morning and finding the river was gone. They plight affected me deeply.

The full article appeared in The Ecologist, February 17th.